engelhar, May 3, 2010 (view all comments by engelhar)
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is a classic feminist novel that centers on the life of Edna Pontellier, a young wife and mother who boldly defies society’s standards for women. This novel, which was originally deemed controversial when it was first published in the late 1800’s, effectively portrays a strong female character. Through the story of Edna, Kate Chopin succeeds in defying the traditional female housewife role.
The novel opens at Grand Isle, a prominent summer vacation spot near New Orleans. Edna resides with her husband and children, living an unfulfilling life with little ambition or passion. The gender stereotypes of the late nineteenth century are apparent immediately, especially when Mr. Pontellier gazes at his wife the way “one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage” (4). It becomes obvious that Mr. Pontellier is not truly devoted to his wife. During her summer stay at Grand Isle, Edna befriends Robert Lebrun. Although their friendship begins innocently, they soon develop a strong attraction that eventually leads to an affair. Throughout the course of the summer, Edna’s actions become bold and rebellious. She begins to openly defy her husband’s will. For example, Edna chooses to sleep outside one night, but her husband demands that she return inside. She replies, “I don’t wish to go in, and I don’t intend to. Don’t speak to me like that again” (37). Her bold response indicates she is no longer content to remain a submissive wife. Through other various events at Grand Isle, Edna gains independence and a new perspective on life. She grows surprisingly attached to Robert, and their affair allows Edna to pull away from her husband and experience new things. As she does this, she develops her identity and discovers her passions and values. At one point in her vacation, the novel states that Edna “felt as if she were being borne away from some anchorage which had held her fast, whose chains had been loosening” (40). Her summer stay at Grand Isle allows her to assert independence and experience freedom for the first time. However, her carefree summer abruptly comes to an end when Robert announces he will be leaving for Mexico. Crushed, Edna returns home.
Edna continues her daring actions when she returns home to New Orleans. While her husband and children are out of town, she purchases a small house for herself, which she dubs the “pigeon house,” becomes an artist, and abandons her social obligations. These daring actions alter her reputation and reveal her refusal to conform to society’s standards of acceptable behavior. Also, she becomes content with being alone because it allows her to develop her talents and passions, such as painting. Even though her self-imposed isolation allows for her “awakening” to truly develop, she still yearns for Robert and constantly thinks about him. After months of hearing no word from him, Robert suddenly returns home. The following events after Robert’s return take a surprising turn, leading to an unexpected decision made by Edna in the ending chapter.
Upon its publication date in 1899, The Awakening was condemned “immoral” because of its blunt portrayal of female sexuality and rebellion. The Awakening was one of the earliest novels dealing with issues of feminism. Edna’s bold assertions of independence were a revolutionary idea at the time. The novel was ripped apart by critics, one even saying that Chopin was “one more clever writer gone wrong” (The Nation). Due to the negative feedback by critics, Chopin’s reputation as a writer was shattered. The Awakening was her final novel because she had considerable difficulty publishing stories afterward. Now, over a century after its publication, The Awakening is seen as one of the most influential novels in the nineteenth century and a landmark work in the early feminist movement.
This novel is effective in portraying a strong female character that boldly defies societal standards. Edna’s transformation in the novel is significant. At one point the novel describes Edna as a “regal woman, the one who rules, who looks on, who stands alone” (103). This is a strong contrast from the typical women of Edna’s day, who “idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (11). Chopin succeeds in presenting ideas that were revolutionary and far ahead of her time. This novel holds an empowering message for women. Chopin encourages females to question gender stereotypes and become independent. Edna refused to accept the stereotypical housewife role and as a result she was able to live a satisfying life, independent from her husband. Chopin also encourages females to live passionately and discover their ambitions and talents, as Edna does by breaking away from her husband and pursuing a career as an artist.
Chopin effectively uses various elements to present her message to readers. For example, the sea is used as symbol for independence and escape. Chopin writes, “The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamouring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation” (17). For Edna, the sea represents the allure of a new lifestyle. The sea “invites” her to “wander” from her previous life and step into a new, fulfilling life. Edna accepts the “invitation” of the sea and boldly steps away from her former life and marriage.
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is a landmark novel in early feminism. It effectively portrays a strong female character that boldly resists conformity. Edna Pontellier’s open defiance of traditional gender roles was a revolutionary and controversial idea at the time of the novel’s publication. However, Chopin’s ideas were well ahead of her time and this novel remains a classic work of literature a century later.
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First published in 1899, this beautiful, brief novel so disturbed critics and the public that it was banished for decades afterward. Now widely read and admired, The Awakening has been hailed as an early vision of woman's emancipation. This sensuous book tells of a woman's abandonment of her family, her seduction, and her awakening to desires and passions that threated to consumer her. Originally entitled "A Solitary Soul," this portrait of twenty-eight-year-old Edna Pontellier is a landmark in American fiction, rooted firmly in the romantic tradition of Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson. Here, a woman in search of self-discovery turns away from convention and society, and toward the primal, from convention and society, and toward the primal, irresistibly attracted to nature and the sensesThe Awakening, Kate Chopin's last novel, has been praised by Edmund Wilson as "beautifully written." And Willa Cather described its style as "exquisite," "sensitive," and "iridescent." This edition of The Awakening also includes a selection of short stories by Kate Chopin.
"This seems to me a higher order of feminism than repeating the story of woman as victim... Kate Chopin gives her female protagonist the central role, normally reserved for Man, in a meditation on identity and culture, consciousness and art." — From the introduction by Marilynne Robinson.
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